I’ll admit that when I started planning my solo Colombia adventure, I was a little bit nervous about it. I knew just enough about the not-so-distant violent history in Colombia to have some wide-eyed concerns. Of course, I did my research. And, though I read that the wide-scale violence is a thing of the past, it’s still something to pay attention to. Especially when you’re a woman traveling solo.
Do I recommend solo travel to Colombia? I’d respond to the question with a resounding, “hell, yeah!” After all, I lived to tell the tale. However, I would absolutely recommend some safety precautions, much like you should take if you travel anywhere in the world on a solo adventure. And particularly in a developing country.
Here is what you need to know about a solo Colombia adventure trip so you can be prepared and have an amazing time.
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Colombia’s Traumatic Past
When many people think of Colombia, they think of drug cartels, gunfights, white powder, and the infamous man from Medellín. What I found was a very different country. One ready to cast off its violent past with an outward feeling of hope and a lot of enthusiasm.
Most people don’t want to talk about that period of time in the 1980s and early 1990s because it’s just too painful. So many people lost loved ones in tragic circumstances. My guide, Sergio, in Communa 13, Medellín, formerly one of the poorest and most violent neighborhoods of the city. He told me about being 6 years old walking to school and regularly finding dead bodies on the way. Sergio saw them often enough that it no longer scared him.
He pointed off to a hill in the distance and said that many people disappeared, never to be seen again. That hill in the distance is the final resting place for a lot of people, too many to count. When shared so casually, it just underscores the horror of that period. You have to do a substantial amount of numbing out to be able to handle that emotionally.
There are sad and lovely memorials in this area with the names of people who went missing during that tumultuous time. Containers with plants to remember the life of their loved ones with their name lovingly painted on it to let the world know they are not forgotten. They don’t forget, and they never will. But Colombians are proud people and know they are so much better than this tragic time in their past.
Is it Safe to Travel to Colombia?
When I landed in Cartagena, I was more nervous than I admitted to anyone. I wondered how things could change so much in just over twenty years. However, when I started to explore the charming historic old city of Cartagena, I realized that it was just like any other heavily-touristed city. There was nothing dark and mysterious lurking under the surface. Cartagena is exactly what it portrays itself to be: a beautiful city on the Caribbean with a quaint and historic vibe steeped in rich history and culture.
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I’m glad I went to Cartagena first to start my Colombia adventure. It was a really great introduction to this amazing country. It’s also the place where I saw more tourists, and especially more people traveling solo. I actually met several women all on a solo Colombia adventure from the United States. It was the only place where I met more than a sprinkling of Americans.
Visiting Colombia was one of the most amazing trips I have ever taken. I would love to go again, and in fact, I hope to go sometime in the near future. Colombia is starting to become more heavily touristed as people are hearing what an incredible place it is. While that’s wonderful for the country as it can use the influx of tourist dollars, I really enjoyed some of the raw Colombian feel to the places I visited. I hope it doesn’t lose that.
Visiting Developing Countries
Colombia, just like any developing country, can have its challenges. There are definitely some rougher edges in the country as you will see whenever there is significant poverty. You’ll see areas where trash is piled up on the sidewalks and buildings aren’t well maintained.
There are also areas that you do NOT want to go to, as a tourist. It’s important to do some research and to prepare before you go to stay safe. The northeastern part of the country bordering on Venezuela is known to be dangerous, as is the southwestern border area to Ecuador. The U.S. State Department is a good place to go for guidance and it’s kept up-to-date. Though Colombia is generally safe, it is not a place where you want to wander without doing some research.
You also do need to do your research and talk with locals for tips about neighborhoods you should not go to. You do not want to go to downtown Medellín, the El Centro area, at night. And even during the day, you need to be especially vigilant. Most of the crime isn’t of a violent nature, and it’s more pickpocketing. However, there are areas with high gang activity that you do need to be careful of. This is another reason I highly recommend taking walking tours to both orient yourself and to get these insights.
You have to be smart to stay safe, and that means heeding warnings, particularly from the locals. However, I found it to be a truly amazing country and the people are so kind and curious: a testament to the small but increasing volumes of tourists.
The Reaction of My Friends and Family to My Solo Adventure in Colombia
When I told people I was going to Colombia, I got two reactions. Most of my people know me well enough to know that I’m generally not very impulsive. So, they weren’t overly concerned that I was doing something crazy without doing my research first.
Some people were enthusiastic and other people were curious. The curiosity ranged from “how amazing,” to “why would you want to go there?” I think because we have heard so long about the horrors of Colombia’s past, it just doesn’t hit our consciousness as a place we’d want to travel to.
The more I learned about Colombia, the more I wanted to go. I’ll admit that some of it was to demonstrate my daring, or to some, audacity at going to a place like Colombia. But even more than that, I read about how incredible the Colombian people were. And if I could support those I came across with my tourist dollars to help them make their country better, I was all in.
Solo Travel in Colombia
I was surprised by how many people I met in Colombia who were traveling solo. I have only met a couple of people who had visited before I went, and it’s really not a place on many people’s radar. Most of the people were from Europe, though I even found a few solo women while I was in Cartegena.
Colombia is becoming an increasingly desirable place to visit. It is very inexpensive to visit and that is appealing. It’s also not crowded with tourists yet. I did see a lot of tourists in Cartagena, however, the other places I went had fewer overall. It’s a great place to travel either with others or solo. I didn’t feel any less comfortable on my own than I have in Madrid and Bangkok.
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My Solo Adventure in Colombia
After going on quite a few solo trips, I thought I had solo travel nailed. Sure, I always get a little tingle in my stomach as a step off a plane on my own, and that may just be my normal. But, I wasn’t prepared for the nervousness I felt as the plane landed.
I came back from my trip to Colombia completely in love with the country. I went to five places with a couple of day trips, and enjoyed everywhere I went. Now, two years later, I’m still thinking about when I can get back to Colombia. It was that memorable.
Ways to Stay Safe as a Solo Traveler
There are a lot of great tips to use as a solo traveler to stay safe. And they aren’t just for solo travelers! Even when you travel with others, many of these are a good idea. There is a pervasive myth of safety in groups and while to some extent it’s true, it can be dangerous as well. Sure, If you’re in a large group, you may be less likely to be kidnapped. However, you’re more likely to be pick-pocketed. People traveling with others tend to focus on the people they are with, making them better targets.
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Places to Use Caution in Colombia
As I mentioned, always ask locals if there are areas you should avoid. That’s just good common sense, and honestly, I do this everywhere I go, whether I’m solo or with a friend. This is not intended to be a complete list for the country, or even for the places I visited, but just some examples.
And it’s a good thing to know that even if a place is considered safe to visit, you may still need to be aware of areas to be careful in or to avoid. I found this to be the case in Medellín and Bogotá, which I’ll share more detail about. In Cartagena, the warnings are generally about pick-pocketing. This is typically prevalent in any high-tourist area.
Medellín was one of my favorite cities in Colombia, however, El Centro in Medellín is an area to be very cautious. The guide of my free walking tour, Juan, told us to not go there at night. He also said to be very careful during the day, particularly in certain areas. Juan highlighted them on our tour, sharing a local saying, “dar papaya.”
The meaning is to not put yourself in a position to allow others to take advantage of you. He likened the safety level in areas to the number of papayas, with 5 being the top.
Several times on our tour, in El Centro, we were at “five papayas.” He collected the group together, asking us to stay close. He had us put our bags on our chest or across our chest, and to keep an eye out. Awareness is the best defense.
Botero Park is heavily touristed and as a result, you will see many pickpockets there. Parque Lleras is an area known for its nightlight, so be careful at night, especially if you are drinking. Parque de las Luces, in El Centro, is another area known for pickpockets.
San Antonio Park, also in El Centro, has fantastic murals and two incredible Botero statues of a bird. One was actually partially destroyed by a guerilla bomb during the dark period of Colombian history and remains a solemn reminder. It’s a great square worth visiting, however, there is gang activity in the area. It’s not recommended to go without a group at any time. My guide advised us to not go at night at all.
Does this mean you can’t go as a solo traveler? Absolutely not. But, I do recommend a walking tour of El Centro so you know the areas to be careful.
Bogotá is a great city to visit in Colombia. But, just like with Medellín, there are cautions to be aware of both with places to go and not to go and to be careful with what you do. The guidance I read about and was told was more about the areas to stay in and not the areas to be careful in. I was told to stick to the historic area of La Candelaria and the neighborhoods surrounding it. Now, La Candelaria is a touristed area so there is some risk for pickpocketing.
I was also told that especially in Bogotá, to be careful of your phone. It’s not a good idea to have your phone out or to use it as it takes your attention from your surroundings. Pick-pockets abound in the tourist areas. Also, holding your phone out and not paying attention makes it easier to snatch.
Staying Safe in Colombia
Again, this isn’t a comprehensive list and I certainly don’t want to scare anyone off. This is similar to most large cities, especially with pickpocketing. The tourist areas in Paris, one of my favorite cities, also has the same issues. However, I want to be sure that people are vigilant and remain safe. There are many things you can do as a traveler to stay safe.
And keep in mind, that when we think of safety in terms of traveling solo, the same goes for traveling with other people. In fact, believing you are more safe traveling with others is a common myth. It’s easy to feel a false sense of security with others and to let your guard down. It only takes a moment!
I also visited Salento and Manizales. I didn’t see any specific cautions in these cities however, it’s a good idea to always be vigilant. While that may sound exhausting, you do get used to it. It’s really no different from scanning, which you do when driving a car. You probably don’t even know you do it anymore, but your eyes are constantly looking all around you to make sure it’s safe. You’ll do the same when you travel once you get used to it.
Why I Recommend a Solo Colombia Adventure
Colombia is a place where you’ll want to take your time to really get to know it. And I think it’s important to know about the country’s history—good and bad. Knowing everything these people have been through will make you fall in love with them for all that they are and all that they have overcome.
There are few better ways to meet locals and really get to know people than when you travel solo. And Colombia is a place where you’ll want to do that. When you’re solo, you’ll be more open to meeting new people, and you will be more approachable. Meet some of the people and you’ll quickly learn what they are made of. They are strong and proud to be Colombian. They are optimistic and look forward to their positive future. That is the Colombia I fell in love with.
So, when people ask me, “Is it safe to go to Colombia?” I give them a big smile and think about my plans for my next amazing solo Colombia adventure.
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